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Earlier this year, I explained why Nordic nations are not socialist. Or, to be more precise, I wrote that if they are socialist, then so is the United States.

And my slam-dunk evidence was this chart from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World., which shows that there is almost no difference in overall economic liberty when comparing the United States with Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

This doesn’t mean, incidentally, that we have identical policies. I pointed out that the United States gets a better (less worse) score on fiscal policy, but also reiterated that Nordic nations are more market oriented than America when looking at other variables (especially rule of law).

The net effect, though, is that we wind up with near-identical scores.

I’m rehashing this old data because there’s a column in The Week that celebrates Norway as an example of “democratic socialism.”

The spectacular upset victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her recent New York congressional primary election has catapulted the topic of democratic socialism to the top of America’s political discussion. …we have a country that very closely approximates the democratic socialist ideal. It’s a place that is…considerably more successful than the United States on virtually every social metric one can name. I’m talking about Norway. …Norwegian workers are heavily protected, with 70 percent of workers covered by union contracts, and over a third directly employed by the government. The Norwegian state operates a gigantic sovereign wealth fund, and its financial assets total 331 percent of its GDP… Meanwhile, its state-owned enterprises are worth 87 percent of GDP. Of all the domestic wealth in Norway, the government owns 59 percent, and fully three-quarters of the non-home wealth.

I don’t know if those specific statistics are true, but I certainly don’t disagree with the assertion that Norway has a large public sector.

But here are a couple of passages that don’t pass the laugh test.

Norway is unquestionably more socialist than Venezuela… Indeed, it is considerably more socialist than supposedly-communist China.

This is absurdly inaccurate. If there was a thermonuclear version of wrong, you would be seeing a giant mushroom cloud.

Here’s the data on overall economic freedom for Norway, Venezuela, and China. As you can see, Norway is far more market oriented.

So how does the author, Ryan Cooper, rationalize his fantastical assertion of Norwegian super-socialism?

If you read the article, he has a tortured definition of democratic socialism. One of his variables is government ownership, which normally would be a reasonable piece of data to include.

But it’s an artificial number when looking at Norway since the government controls the nation’s oil and also has a big sovereign wealth fund that was financed by oil revenue.

In other words, Norway is geographically lucky because all that oil boosts Norwegian GDP. It makes Norwegians relatively prosperous. And it definitely helps partially offset the economic damage of big government.

But it’s nonsensical to argue that oil-rich Norway somehow provides evidence for overall notion of democratic socialism. It’s sort of like looking at data for Kuwait and asserting that the best economic system is a hereditary sheikdom.

Yet he wants people to support socialism simply because of Norway, as illustrated by this final excerpt.

…when it comes to building a decent place to live, Norway is completely blowing America out of the water. So while conservatives have been pointedly ignoring the most obvious and relevant piece of evidence in their spittle-flecked tirades against socialism, Norwegians can and do point to the United States as an example of what happens when you let capitalism run wild.

But there’s one itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny problem. As you can see from the chart, Norway and the United States have almost identical levels of economic liberty.

So if America is “capitalism run wild,” then so is Norway. Or if Norway is “socialism,” then so is the United States.

The bottom line is that both the United States and Norway are admirable nations by global standards. We both rank in the top-20 percent for overall economic freedom.

But we’re not Hong Kong or Singapore, so we both obviously should do a better job of following the recipe for greater prosperity.

For additional information about what’s good and bad about Norway and other countries in the region, I recommend these columns from January 2015 and June 2015.

For additional information about why socialism is bad (both democratic and totalitarian versions), just open your eyes and look at world evidence. Or you can also peruse these columns from June 2017 and August 2017.

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Last month, we summarized libertarianism in five images.

In the interest of fairness, now let’s give equal time to the other side. After all, statists deserve an opportunity to present their case.

And we’ll start with this image, which makes the same point about coercion found in the “two-sentences” column I shared two months ago.

Unfortunately for our leftist friends, coercion doesn’t lead to effectiveness.

So this next image aptly captures the inherent problem of statist solutions.

So now you understand why Santa Claus sometimes has a problem.

And what happens when you mix the coercive nature of government with the fantasy world of government-provided goodies? Well, President Eisenhower already gave us the answer, but here’s the visual version.

But let’s not forget somebody has to pay for this collectivist utopia.

And that brings us to the joy of taxation.

Last but not least, we’ll close with an image that illustrates how statism works in practice, which is why the message in this poster is so painfully true.

Having now presented five images for libertarianism and five images for statism, I suppose I could put together a poll to see which philosophy has more support.

But since libertarians are against untrammeled majoritarianism, that somehow doesn’t seem right. So instead I’ll simply recycle this bit of humor on the difference between the public sector and the private sector. Actually, there’s a scene from Ghostbusters that tells us everything we need to know.

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New Jersey is a fiscal disaster area.

It’s in last place in the Tax Foundation’s index that measures a state’s business tax climate.

It’s tied for last place in the Mercatus Center’s ranking of state fiscal conditions.

And it ranks in the bottom-10 in measures of state economic freedom and measures of unfunded liabilities for bureaucrat pensions.

All of this led me, last October, to warn that the state was suffering from fiscal decay.

Then, two months ago, James Freeman of the Wall Street Journal wrote about how New Jersey’s uncompetitive fiscal system was encouraging highly productive taxpayers to leave the state.

The Garden State already has the third largest overall tax burden and the country’s highest property tax collections per capita. Now that federal reform has limited the deduction for state and local taxes, the price of government is surging again among high-income earners in New Jersey and other blue states. Taxpayers are searching for the exits. …says Jeffrey Sica, founder of Circle Squared, an alternative investments firm. “We structure real estate deals for family offices and high-net-worth individuals and at a record pace those family offices and individuals are leaving the TriState for lower-tax states. Probably a dozen this year at least,”…In the decade ending in 2016, real economic growth in New Jersey clocked in at a compound annual percentage rate of 0.1, just slightly higher than John Blutarsky’s GPA and less than a tenth of the national average for economic growth. The Tax Foundation ranks New Jersey dead last among the 50 states for its business tax climate. …Steven Malanga calls Mr. Murphy’s plan “the U-Haul Budget” for the new incentives it gives New Jersey residents to flee.

You would think that New Jersey politicians would try to stop the bleeding, particularly given the impact of federal tax reform.

But that assumes logic, common sense, and a willingness to put the interests of people above the interests of government. Unfortunately, all of those traits are in short supply in the Garden State, so instead the politicians decided to throw gasoline on the fire with another big tax hike.

The Wall Street Journal opines today on the new agreement from Trenton.

Governor Phil Murphy and State Senate leader Steve Sweeney have been fighting over whether to raise tax rates on individuals or businesses, and over the weekend they decided to raise taxes on both. Messrs. Murphy and Sweeney agreed to raise the state’s income tax on residents making more than $5 million to 10.75% from 8.97% and the corporate rate on companies with more than $1 million in income to 11.5% from 9%. This will give New Jersey the fourth highest marginal income tax rate on individuals and the second highest corporate rate after Iowa.

New Jersey is pursuing class warfare, but the politicians don’t seem to realize that the geese with the golden eggs can fly away.

The two Democrats claim this will do no harm because about 0.04% of New Jersey taxpayers will get smacked. But those taxpayers account for 12.5% of state income-tax revenue and their investment income is highly mobile. The state treasurer said in 2016 that a mere 100 filers pay more than 5.5% of all state receipts. Billionaire David Tepper escaped from New Jersey for Florida in 2015, and other hedge fund managers could follow. Between 2012 and 2016 a net $11.9 billion of income left New Jersey, according to the IRS. The flight risk will increase with the new limit of $10,000 on deducting state and local taxes on federal tax returns. …About two-thirds of New Jersey’s $3.5 billion income outflow last year went to Florida, which doesn’t have an income tax. …The fair question is why any rational person or business that can move would stay in New Jersey.

That’s not merely a fair question, it’s a description of what’s already happening. And it’s going to accelerate – in New Jersey and other uncompetitive states – when additional soak-the-rich schemes are imposed (unless politicians figure out a way to put fences and guard towers at the border).

A few months ago, I conducted a poll on which state would be the first to suffer a fiscal collapse. For understandable reasons, Illinois was the easy “winner.” But I won’t be surprised if there are a bunch of new votes for New Jersey. Simply stated, the state is committing fiscal suicide.

P.S. What’s amazing (and depressing) is that New Jersey was like New Hampshire as recently as the 1960s, with no state sales tax and no state income tax.

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I wrote yesterday about the continuing success of Switzerland’s spending cap.

Before voters changed the Swiss constitution, overall expenditures were growing by an average of 4.6 percent annually. Ever since the “debt brake” took effect, though, government spending has increased by an average of just 2.1 percent.

For all intents and purposes, Switzerland is getting good results because it is now complying with fiscal policy’s Golden Rule.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the United States. The Congressional Budget Office just released its new long-run forecast of the federal budget.

The most worrisome factoid in the report is that the overall burden of federal spending is going to expand significantly over the next three decades, jumping from 20.6 percent of the economy this year to 29.3 percent of economic output in 2048.

And why will the federal budget consume an ever-larger share of economic output? The chart tells you everything you need to know. Our fiscal situation is deteriorating because government is growing faster than the private sector.

Actually, the chart doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. It doesn’t tell us, for instances, that tax increases simply make a bad situation worse since politicians then have an excuse to avoid much-need reforms.

And the chart also doesn’t reveal that entitlement programs are the main cause of ever-expanding government.

But the chart does a great job of showing that our fundamental problem is growth of government. Which presumably makes it obvious that the only logical solution is a spending cap.

The good news is that there already is a spending cap in Washington.

But the bad news is that it only applies to “appropriations,” which are a small share of the overall federal budget.

And the worse news is that politicians voted to bust that spending cap in 2013, 2015, and earlier this year.

The bottom line is that we know spending restraint works, but the challenge is figuring out a system that actually ties the hands of politicians. Switzerland and Hong Kong solved that problem by making their spending caps part of their national constitutions.

Sadly, there’s little immediate hope of that kind of reform in the United States.

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I very much suspect Obama partisans and Trump partisans won’t like this column, but the sad reality is that both Obamacare and Trump’s protectionism have a lot in common.

  • In both cases, government is limiting the freedom of buyers and sellers to engage in unfettered exchange.
  • In both cases, the fiscal burden of government increases.
  • In both cases, politicians misuse statistics to expand the size and scope of government.

Today, let’s add another item to that list.

  • In both cases, the Washington swamp wins thanks to increased cronyism and corruption.

To see what I mean, let’s travel back in time to 2011. I wrote a column about Obamacare and cited some very persuasive arguments by Tim Carney that government-run healthcare (or, to be more accurate, expanded government control of healthcare) was creating a feeding frenzy for additional sleaze in Washington.

Congress imposes mandates on other entities, but gives bureaucrats the power to waive those mandates. To get such a waiver, you hire the people who used to administer or who helped craft the policies. So who’s the net winner? The politicians and bureaucrats who craft policies and wield power, because this combination of massive government power and wide bureaucratic discretion creates huge demand for revolving-door lobbyists.

I then pointed out that the sordid process of Obamacare waivers was eerily similar to a passage in Atlas Shrugged.

Wesley Mouch…issued another directive, which ruled that people could get their bonds “defrozen” upon a plea of “essential need”: the government would purchase the bonds, if it found proof of the need satisfactory. …One was not supposed to speak about the men who…possessed needs which, miraculously, made thirty-three frozen cents melt into a whole dollar, or about a new profession practiced by bright young boys just out of college, who called themselves “defreezers” and offered their services “to help you draft your application in the proper modern terms.” The boys had friends in Washington.

Well, the same thing is happening again. Only this time, as reported by the New York Times, protectionism is the policy that is creating opportunities for swamp creatures to line their pockets.

The Trump administration granted seven companies the first set of exclusions from its metal tariffs this week and rejected requests from 11 other companies, as the Commerce Department began slowly responding to the 20,000 applications that companies have filed for individual products. …several companies whose applications were denied faced objections from American steel makers. …companies that have applied for the exclusions criticized the exercise as both long and disorganized. “This is the most screwed-up process,” said Mark Mullen, president of Griggs Steel, a steel distributor in the Detroit area. “This is a disservice to our industry and the biggest insult to our intelligence that I have ever seen from the government.”

From an economic perspective, it certainly is true that this new system is “disorganized” and “a disservice” and an “insult to our intelligence.” Those same words could be used to describe the welfare state, the EEOC, farm subsidies, the tax code, and just about everything else the government does.

But there’s one group of people who are laughing all the way to the bank, The lobbyists, consultants, fixers, and other denizens of the swamp are getting rich. Whether they’re preparing the applications, lobbying for the applications, or lobbying against the applications, they are getting big paychecks.

And the longer this sordid protectionist process continues, we will see a repeat of what happened with Obamacare as senior-level people in government move through the revolving door so they can get lucrative contracts to help clients manipulate the system (yes, Republicans can be just as sleazy as Democrats).

Washington wins and we lose.

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Writing a column every day can sometimes be a challenge, in part because of logistics (I have to travel a lot, which can make things complicated), but also because I want to make sure I’m sharing interesting and relevant information.

My task, however, is very easy on certain days. When Economic Freedom of the World is published in the autumn, I know that will be my topic (as it was in 2017, 2016, 2015, etc). My only challenge is to figure out how to keep the column to a manageable size since there’s always so much fascinating data.

Likewise, I know that I have a very easy column about this time of year (2017, 2016, 2015, etc) since that’s when the Social Security Administration releases the annual Trustees Report.

It’s an easy column to write, but it’s also depressing since my main goal is to explain that the program already consumes an enormous pile of money and that it will become an every bigger burden in the future.

Here are the 1970-2095 budgetary outlays from the latest report, adjusted for inflation. As you can see, the forecast shows a huge increase in spending.

The good news, as least relatively speaking, is that we’ll also have inflation-adjusted growth between now and 2095, so the numbers aren’t quite as horrifying as they appear. That being said, Social Security inexorably will consume a larger share of the private economy over time.

Now let’s examine a second issue. Most news reports incorrectly focus on the year the Social Security Trust Fund runs out of money.

But since that “Trust Fund” is filled with nothing but IOUs, I think that’s an utterly pointless piece of data. So every year I show the cumulative $43.7 trillion cash-flow deficit in the system. Using inflation-adjusted dollars, of course.

Assuming we don’t reform the program, think of these numbers as a reflection of a built-in future tax hike.

You won’t be surprised to learn, by the way, that politicians such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton already have identified their preferred tax hikes to fill this gap.

Let’s wrap up.

Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus accurately summarizes both the problem and the solution.

The single largest government program in the United States will soon have an annual budget of $1 trillion a year. …The program is Social Security, and our national pastime seems to be turning a blind eye to its dysfunctions. …Since 2010, it has been running a cash-flow deficit—meaning that the Social Security payroll taxes the government collects aren’t enough to cover the benefits it’s obliged to pay out. …

Veronique punctures the myth that there’s a “Trust Fund” that can be used to magically pay benefits.

Prior to 2010, the program collected more in payroll taxes than was needed to pay the benefits due at the time. The leftovers were “invested” into Treasury bonds through the so-called Old Age Trust Fund, which is now being drawn down. …In fact, the Treasury bonds are nothing but IOUs. …Treasury…doesn’t have the money: It has already spent it on wars, roads, education, domestic spying, and much more. So when Social Security shows up with its IOUs, Treasury has to borrow to pay the bonds back. …Did you catch that? Past generations of workers paid extra payroll taxes to bulk up the Social Security system. But the government spent that additional revenue on non-retirement activities, so now your children and grandchildren will also have to pay more in taxes to reimburse the program.

So what’s the solution?

Veronique explains we need to reform the system by allowing personal retirement accounts. She was even kind enough to quote me cheerleading for the Australian system.

Congress should shift away from Social Security into a “funded” system based on real savings, much as Australia and others have done. The libertarian economist Daniel J. Mitchell notes that, starting in the ’80s and ’90s, that country has required workers to put 9.5 percent of their income into a personal retirement account. As a safety net—but not as a default—Australians with limited savings are guaranteed a basic pension. That program has generated big increases in wealth. Meanwhile, Social Security has generated big deficits and discouraged private saving. Who would you have emulate the other?

Though I’m ecumenical. I also have written favorably about the Chilean system, the Hong Kong system, the Swiss system, the Dutch system, the Swedish system. Heck, I even like the system in the Faroe Islands.

The bottom line is that there’s been a worldwide revolution in favor of private savings and the United States is falling behind.

P.S. If you have some statist friends and family who get confused by numbers, here’s a set of cartoons that shows the need for Social Security reform.

P.P.S. As I explain in this video, reform does not mean reducing benefits for current retirees, or even older workers.

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As a general rule, we worry too much about deficits and debt. Yes, red ink matters, but we should pay more attention to variables such as the overall burden of government spending and the structure of the tax system.

That being said, Greece shows that a nation can experience a crisis if investors no longer trust that a government is capable of “servicing” its debt (i.e., paying interest and principal to people and institutions that hold government bonds).

This doesn’t change the fact that Greece’s main fiscal problem is too much spending. It simply shows that it’s also important to recognize the side-effects of too much spending (if you have a brain tumor, that’s your main problem, even if crippling headaches are a side-effect of the tumor).

Anyhow, it’s quite likely that Italy will be the next nation to travel down this path.

This in in part because the Italian economy is moribund, as noted by the Wall Street Journal.

Italy’s national elections…featured populist promises of largess but neglected what economists have long said is the real Italian disease: The country has forgotten how to grow. …The Italian economy contracted deeply in Europe’s debt crisis earlier this decade. A belated recovery now under way yielded 1.5% growth in 2017—a full percentage point less than the eurozone as a whole and not enough to dispel Italians’ pervasive sense of national decline. Many European policy makers view Italy’s stasis as the likeliest cause of a future eurozone crisis.

Why would Italy be the cause of a future crisis?

For the simple reason that it is only the 4th-largest economy in Europe, but this chart from the Financial Times shows it has the most nominal debt.

So what’s the solution?

The obvious answer is to dramatically reduce the burden of government.

Interestingly, even the International Monetary Fund put forth a half-decent proposal based on revenue-neutral tax reform and modest spending restraint.

The scenario modeled assumes a permanent fiscal consolidation of about 2 percent of GDP (in the structural primary balance) over four years…, supported by a pro-growth mix of revenue and expenditure reforms… Two types of growth-friendly revenue and spending measures are considered along the envisaged fiscal consolidation path: shifting taxation from direct to indirect taxes, and lowering expenditure and shifting its composition from transfers to investment. On the revenue side, a lower labor tax wedge (1.5 percent of GDP) is offset by higher VAT collections (1 percent of GDP) and introducing a modern property tax (0.5 percent of GDP). On the expenditure side, spending on public consumption is lowered by 1.25 percent of GDP, while productive public investment spending is increased by 0.5 percent of GDP. The remaining portion of the fiscal consolidation, 1.25 percent of GDP, is implemented via reduced social transfers.

Not overly bold, to be sure, but I suppose I should be delighted that the IMF didn’t follow its usual approach and recommend big tax increases.

So are Italians ready to take my good advice, or even the so-so advice of the IMF?

Nope. They just had an election and the result is a government that wants more red ink.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page is not impressed by the economic agenda of Italy’s putative new government.

Five-Star wants expansive welfare payments for poor Italians, revenues to pay for it not included. Italy’s public debt to GDP, at 132%, is already second-highest in the eurozone behind Greece. Poor Italians need more economic growth to generate job opportunities, not public handouts that discourage work. The League’s promise of a pro-growth 15% flat tax is a far better idea, especially in a country where tax avoidance is rife. The two parties would also reverse the 2011 Monti government pension reforms, which raised the retirement age and moved Italy toward a contribution-based benefit system. …Recent labor-market reforms may also be on the block.

Simply stated, Italy elected free-lunch politicians who promised big tax cuts and big spending increases. I like the first part of that lunch, but the overall meal doesn’t add up in a nation that has a very high debt level.

And I don’t think the government has a very sensible plan to make the numbers work.

…problematic for the rest of Europe are the two parties’ demand for an exemption from the European Union’s 3% GDP cap on annual budget deficits. …the two parties want the European Central Bank to cancel some €250 billion in Italian debt.

Demond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute suggests this will lead to a fiscal crisis because of two factors. First, the economy is weak.

Anyone who thought that the Eurozone debt crisis was resolved has not been paying attention to economic and political developments in Italy…the recent Italian parliamentary election…saw a surge in support for populist political parties not known for their commitment to economic orthodoxy or to real economic reform. …To say that the Italian economy is in a very poor state would be a gross understatement. Over the past decade, Italy has managed to experience a triple-dip economic recession that has left the level of its economy today 5 percent below its pre-2008 peak. Meanwhile, Italy’s current unemployment level is around double that of its northern neighbors, while its youth unemployment continues to exceed 25 percent. …the country’s public debt to GDP ratio continued to rise to 133 percent, making the country the most indebted country in the Eurozone after Greece. …its banking system remains clogged with non-performing loans that still amount to 15 percent of its balance sheet…

Second, existing debt is high.

…having the world’s third-largest government bond market after Japan and the United States, with $2.5 trillion in bonds outstanding, Italy is simply too large a country for even Germany to save. …global policymakers…, it would seem not too early for them to start making contingency plans for a full blown Italian economic crisis.

Since he writes on issues I care about, I always enjoy reading Lachman’s work. Though I don’t always agree with his analysis.

Why, for instance, does he think an Italian fiscal crisis threatens the European currency?

…the Italian economy is far too large an economy to fail if the Euro is to survive in anything like its present form.

Would the dollar be threatened if (when?) Illinois goes bankrupt?

But let’s not get sidetracked.3

To give you an idea of the fairy-tale thinking of Italian politicians, I’ll close with this chart from L’Osservatorio on the fiscal impact of the government’s agenda. It’s in Italian, but all you need to know is that the promised tax cuts and spending increases are on the left side and the compensating savings (what we would call “pay-fors”) are on the right side.

Wow, makes me wonder if Italy has passed the point of no return.

By the way, Italy may be the next domino, but it’s not the only European nation with fiscal problems.

P.S. No wonder some people want Sardinia to secede from Italy and become part of “sensible” Switzerland.

P.P.S. Some leftists genuinely think the United States should emulate Italy.

P.P.P.S. As a fan of spending caps, I can’t resist pointing out that anti-deficit rules in Europe have not stopped politicians from expanding government.

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